On my way to meet octogenarian Irving Stone – Britain’s oldest high-performance waterskier – I started to wonder just how I was going to recognise him.
“Perhaps I should get a Magen David embroidered on my wet suit and turn up in that,” was his droll response, referencing 1930s champion boxer Jack ‘Kid’ Berg, who famously wore the symbol on his shorts.
As it turns out, the sun is in my eyes as he approaches to greet me. In the poor background light, I look past the silhouette of a youngish man with a light step wearing a bomber jacket, jeans and jodhpur boots, accompanied by an elegant blonde and a young brunette – only to discover that this is Stone himself, alongside his wife, Laurence, and their 21-year-old daughter, Lou.
‘Irv the Swerve’ Stone has earned his nickname for his athletic dynamism in slaloming across the wake of the water ski boat on one ski, perfectly poised at the end of a short rope at exhilarating competition speed.
The north Londoner held the British Over-55s national record for slalom skiing in 1998, breaking it by two buoys. Stone still skis at pro level.
According to his coach, Damien Ackerer, who has skied for France: “Irving can run rings round most talented 21-year-olds.”
To celebrate his 80th birthday in July, he spent the day at his club in Cambridgeshire: he and the engine firing on all cylinders.
How does he do it? Educated at Clifton College, at the entirely Jewish Polack’s House, founded in 1878, he was sports-minded from an early age.
“I wasn’t particularly bright,” says the high-powered property specialist in a top firm of city solicitors – and the essence of British-Jewish
He still relishes the back-handed compliment served to him by his housemaster: “Stone has achieved a satisfactory ‘A’ level result in the teeth of adverse criticism, but he does play some rather vigorous rugger.”
Stone went on to a career of vigorous litigation, qualifying with Nabarro Nathanson in 1964, a firm with old-fashioned values.
He started skiing two years earlier while on summer holiday in Juan-les-Pins on the Cote d’Azur, motivated by the example of a heart-throb ski instructor cutting a dash across the wake in front of a gaggle of adoring lovelies.
A play-to-win instinct rapidly took over, and Irving moved on from recreational skiing to the arena of competition performance, which he alternated with barefoot skiing.
The discipline of slalom is physically demanding, requiring strength, coordination, balance and super-fast reactive technique.
In competitive slalom, the skier must virage around a course of buoys. With each ‘pass’, the rope length becomes progressively shorter so that it is eventually less than the distance from the boat to the buoy – a space so tight that the skier’s body length forms part of the
Stone now skis with a boat speed of 32mph (it’s more like 50mph at the moment of crossing the wake) and shortens the rope right down to the world record length of 9.75 metres.
In 2002, Stone was struck down by macular degeneration and his eye surgeon told him never to ski again lest he incur further damage
with a fall on the water.
He gave up his favourite sport – but only for a while. “It nearly drove me mad,” he explains.
Stone has had a detached retina, necessitating immediate surgery, despite his protestations of a rather full week in the office. He’s dislocated his shoulder, snapped his Achilles’ tendon and torn a bicep. An aneurism left him with only part of his kidney.
But on the water, Stone has suffered no ailments, having been inured to colds from exposure to all weathers. He doesn’t bother with the gym (“boring, and full of people looking at themselves in the mirror”)
and maintains a high level of fitness by skiing every weekend.
Stone used to ski right through the winter, but now ‘only’ skis up until November, snow-skiing in the winter at a family chalet near Megève in south-eastern France.
He has skied all over the world and greets old skiing friends wherever he goes. The West London synagogue member explains that it’s akin to belonging to a big club, “a bit like being Jewish”.
What does he think of his own ability? Stone considers the question for a few seconds and chooses his words carefully, probably because
he’s been brought up never to boast, but also never to tell an untruth.
“I realise it’s a gift, and it makes me appreciate it all the more,” he says.
The truth is that Ackerer, his coach, thinks his technique is better than it’s ever been.
Stone reckons he’s skied the equivalent of the Atlantic and back, which would presumably freeze over before he stopped. His face lights up just at
“It’s the most amazing fix. It’s euphoria. I never want to stop.”
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